2. Peppermint Tea

WE WERE IN A fortress town in southern Spain, at another one of the interminable procession of medieval fortress towns, at another one of the usual interminable procession of early-music festivals, touring our program of English Renaissance a cappella music.

It was an afternoon in September, and I was preparing for that night's show as usual: I showered, shaved and dressed in comfortable clothes, and took the lift down to the lobby, holding over my arm my formal black performance clothes (the women wore white of course), covered in launderer's plastic. Usually I was the first of the sextet to arrive in the lobby but on this occasion Bernadette was already there. Some singers like to spend time along before a show, gathering their thoughts and concentrating their mind before the pre-performance commotion begins, but I am the opposite. If anything, my mind gets too concentrated when I am alone, so I prefer to spend time in a public place - hotel lobbies are perfect - seated somewhere with a drink (usually a cup of peppermint tea, which I always bring with me in case it's not available) watching the passing parade of human beings, who are a never-ending source of entertainment to me.

But on this occasion, Bernadette was already there. She saw me and rushed, almost ran towards me, and when we came together she took hold of my forearm with the kind of grip often described as vice-like, and I noticed that she he looked pale, ghostly even, I might say, although that might an exaggeration my mind is adding in hindsight. It was well known within the sextet that I held a soft spot for Bernadette, even though I was married and completely and utterly incapable of infidelity, at least of the sexual variety. Any glance in Bernadette's direction always threw up the same thought in my mind - of her beauty, the beauty not just of her face but of something else, something intangible, something like a monument buried deep under desert sand - but on this occasion there was no such admiration. I asked her immediately what was wrong, and she began to tell me a complicated story of telephone calls in the middle of the night and indecipherable threats and a cab ride to nowhere.

My reaction, I'm sorry to say, was entirely selfish. My position in the sextet was insecure - no one had told me so directly, but there were a thousand clues all pointing in the same direction. Her story was putting my mind out of kilter, and my performance was bound to suffer. I could not afford a poor performance, this sextet was my living, whereas Bernadette was safe, Bernadette was everyone's favourite. Within minutes the others would arrive and we would have to board a minibus for the concert hall. Her story, which made no sense to me, would sew panic among the sextet.

I told Bernadette to stop, to catch her breath, you're talking too quickly, I said, I'm not following any of this. I took her hand (ice cold) and led her to one of the leather sofas in the lobby, one of those armless sofas designed to be comfortable but not too comfortable, ordering two cups of tea from the receptionist along the way, and once we had sat down she began telling me the story again, slower this time, and in more detail. The cups of tea arrived, and Bernadette held hers with both hands, as if warming her fingers. As she spoke, my anxieties about that night's performance were eclipsed by other anxieties, darker anxieties, anxieties I had never considered before, at least not outside my dreams. As her tale began to crystallise in my mind, I was overtaken by a dawning sense of horror, a sense that Bernadette was doomed, that I was doomed, that we were all, every single one of us, doomed.